When I first saw this photo series, I don't know what resonated with me more: the images or the stories that accompany them. I reached out to photographer Waleed Shah to discuss the poignant project.
I've photographed busy and sought-after agency models through to shy people working in accounts for a company who have less than no interest in having their picture taken. One trend I noticed was that the level of a person's insecurity over their body image or appearance appeared to have no correlation with how conventionally attractive they were. In fact, some of the people I have photographed lacking in confidence the most were also the most photogenic. With insecurity being universal, therefore, I always like to see photo series that pull away from the trend of extreme high-end beauty and focus more on story or what makes the subject unique.
Talented commercial and portrait photographer Waleed Shah recently began sharing a series titled "Rock Your Ugly," in which he captures the very thing that the subject is insecure about, starting with himself. While a reasonably simple objective on paper, the difficulties that come with creating such a series are numerous, so I decided to have a chat with him about his work and this project. To give us a strong foundation, I asked Waleed what Rock Your Ugly is to him.
Rock Your Ugly is a personal project in which I started to explore people’s body insecurities after I struggled with my own a few years ago. However, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I decided to dive into it, after my best friend passed away and I needed something to occupy myself with. It quickly took a different direction — more of a mental health exploration that looked like a body insecurity on the surface. It helped me deal with my own pain in a group therapy kind of way, where I would listen to someone else’s pain and then talk about my own.
I hadn't anticipated such a tragic prompt to the series, nor had I expected just how deep the motivation to create it would run. The intrinsic link between self-image and mental health is familiar to me, and one doesn't have to hang their hat on good looks to struggle with low self-worth as it fades. Many of us — myself very much included — don't weigh up to their perceptions of what people ought to look like and be, and as Waleed highlights, these emotions seldom stay on the surface. He qualified that the ultimate goal of the project is to highlight just that: the insecurities we all have and their deeper effects.
One difficulty with creating a series like this is finding subjects. Last year, a personal project of mine failed to get off the ground because I just couldn't find enough willing subjects to step in front of the camera and I, like Waleed, I'm sure, wouldn't want people to feel uncomfortable. Waleed mentioned that while several subjects weren't open books with regards to talking about themselves, they used the opportunity of being a part of this series to take a step towards accepting how they look.
Creative and Technical Direction
Emotive and raw portraiture projects are often shot black and white. I have my own reasons for making that decision — as we all do — but a lot of Waleed's work is colorful and vibrant commercial or fashion work, so the choice to make this project black and white was one I had to probe:
Ever since I read Ted Grant’s quote 'When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls,' I started shooting portraits in black and white. I didn’t want to draw attention to what they were wearing, so the viewer is focused on the person and their story. I still shoot in color for commercial and fashion projects, of course.
This decision is further supported by the minimalism and simplicity of the scenes in which the photographs are created. They aren't overly elaborate sets with complex lighting; they aren't distant and photogenic landscapes; they aren't even glossy studio images on pure white. They are natural — in the truest sense of the word — settings which almost remove them from the first impression of the images. That is, you focus on the person and their insecurity, and it feels all the more intimate for that. Waleed enforced three rules with this project: all images would be black and white, the subjects would have no makeup, and there would be no Photoshop work done to them. This inclination towards purity, naturalness, and honesty is reflected clearly in the images themselves. The issue is, the more stripped back an image is, the more exposed the subject will be.
Waleed confirmed that creating the photographs was the most challenging part: "Having to pose someone to highlight their insecurity isn’t just difficult physically but also emotionally for the person." Imagine for a moment — truly imagine — having a photographer want to capture your biggest insecurity in glorious HD; no filters, no retouching, and no flattering angles that ensure that 'flaw' of yours recedes into the background. That's difficult for anyone." Waleed allayed these fears by allowing the subject to view images on the screen and outright refuse certain shots being used in the project. That, I'm sure, was a necessary comfort.
This is an ongoing project, and Waleed encourages people to reach out to be involved in it. The number of entries is still growing, and each image is accompanied by the person's story, which makes for excellent reads. It's a series that is simple in aim, but difficult in execution, and the results are captivating.